Over the last few months there has been much discussion about the impact students are having on the city during lockdown. In normal times Galway has approximately 28,000 students attending a variety of third level colleges and language schools. Given that the last census in 2016 put the city's population at 79,504, students potentially represent 35 per cent of the residents. Obviously, many of these students are Galway natives and may be living in the family home, but a significant cohort are drawn to the city for college from further afield and need housing to live in for the academic year.
Naturally as we pass the one-year anniversary of our first Covid-induced lockdown, the city currently has less than 50 per cent of its normal numbers of student residents. While early on there was some talk that online learning was the way forward, it has become apparent that a blended approach is now more likely. However, what is very clear is that there is a huge appetite among students to return to Galway for the academic year 2021-22, subject to vaccine roll out and lockdown lifts. Having recently opened our booking lines, accommodation booked out quickly and we have large numbers of students on standby lists should vacancies arise. Twenty five per cent of bookings came from existing residents and the remainder from students looking to return to living in Galway.
This desire to live in the city reflects several elements, firstly third level education is not all about lectures and study, which can be delivered remotely. Living away from home and building new friendships with all that these experiences entail are key parts of the college experience. Galway’s vibrant social scene is also attractive, and it is important to reflect how crucial students are to funding and working in Galway’s lively arts and social scene. Students played a major role in supporting Galway city's economy during the last downturn and they drive Galway’s entertainment scene, particularly in the winter in mid-week when tourist visitor numbers drop.
The other reason accommodation is in demand is due to the increased numbers of people looking to commence third level education in September 2021. The most recent CAO figures indicated that applications were up nine per cent, some courses have seen demand double. One newspaper reported that NUI Galway is seeing higher demand across almost all areas. with courses in science, engineering, arts, and medicine experiencing significant increases. Much of this increase is driven by people looking to retrain post Covid. Demand for some environment related courses was up 70 per cent, reflecting increased awareness of the green agenda.
Traditionally many students lived in “digs” for their first year away from home, with graduates providing mostly good memories of this experience. While Covid may have been the final nail in the coffin for this type of accommodation, the reality is that as numbers of students have grown demand was outstripping supply. This naturally has a huge impact on the housing in the city with students availing of a mix of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA ) and standalone houses and apartments for rent. In terms of PBSA, while excellent broadband and a well-managed safe site have traditionally been important factors, over the last 12 months we have seen pastoral care and good links to college health supports become crucial, particularly where students have had to self-isolate or are reluctant or restricted from visiting their homes.
A few weeks ago, I discussed the “issues paper” released by Galway City Council as the first step towards developing a city plan for the period 2023 to 2029. This plan will guide how the city develops over that period and lay the groundwork for projects into the 2030s. Students and how we accommodate them will form a major part of this plan. Last week’s announcement of €11 million in funding towards a walking and cycling bridge over the old Corrib Viaduct Bridge will transform access to NUIG, as will the Galway Transport Strategy which is already in progress and will also impact GMIT and other institutes. However, the key issues in terms of accommodation are affordability, sustainability, and choice. Much of the PBSA constructed in Dublin over the last five years was pitched towards the international market, with lots of potentially unnecessary amenities, given the high standard of most on campus facilities which led to highly priced accommodation. It is important that as Galway looks to accommodate greater numbers of students we learn from this experience and deliver affordable, sustainable, options for all student cohorts.
Enda McGuane MBS, MSCSI, MRICS is a chartered planning and development surveyor and managing director of Winters Property Management in Galway. He is a member of the Council of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland and Galway Chamber of Commerce.